Arthur Nelson is the reigning king of the pit at the Bono’s Barbecue on Gate Parkway, where he’s worked for 34 years. Nelson is a Jacksonville native who’s watched this city change and grow for decades. According to him, the area that we now know as the upscale St. Johns Town Center was once nothing but cow pastures. Yet, despite the incredible boom in development around Bono’s and all the fancy eateries that have sprung up, nothing has stopped people from coming here for some of the best local barbecue.
Most locals are familiar already with Bono’s, which has been serving up fresh pit barbecue in Jacksonville since 1949. Their history and cooking techniques have been covered before. But what about the man behind the pit? When I heard that Nelson had been working the same job for 34 years and counting, I had to know more about him and his keys to success.
It all started in the 12th grade. Like all teenagers, he didn’t know what he wanted his future to look like, but he took a job as a dishwasher at Bono’s and worked hard enough that his employers took notice. He quickly worked his way up from washing dishes to cooking. He seems to have inadvertently found his niche in the world of barbecue and has become a well-respected pit boss.
In the beginning, he learned the ropes from the legendary Harvey Green, who has spent more than 50 years working the pit at the original Bono’s location on Beach Boulevard. He looks at Green as a father figure, and while he served as a guide in the beginning, Nelson insists that he has his own way of doing things. He believes Jacksonville has its own style that sets it apart from more well-known barbecue cities. “It’s a special thing,” he said.
When he isn’t working, he’s still cooking. He loves to spend his free time with his family and “put something on the grill” at home, but what about when he’s isn’t doing the cooking? Of all the great dining options in town, Nelson likes to keep things simple. “I mostly like Golden Corral,” he said. His favorite dessert? Banana pudding — a Southern classic.
It’s trendy right now for successful people to brag about their elaborate morning routines that usually involve waking up at 5 a.m. and reciting inspirational mantras. When I asked Nelson about his routine, he said he just gets up knowing what he’s going to do every day. When you’ve been doing the same job for so long, it starts to come naturally. Maybe there’s something to be said for that kind of low-key preparation.
So, what would keep someone at the same job for so many years? “Love,” he tells me. He loves what he does and the people he is surrounded by. He says all the employees are like a big family, and they do a lot of laughing on the job. He described the general feeling of his job as “joyful.” Even after an accident claimed one of his legs, Nelson kept up his positive attitude and insisted on going back to work and pushing his limits rather than sitting at home. He said he plans to continue working as long as he can physically handle it, and has no immediate thoughts of retirement, though he would like to travel sometime in the future.
His advice to others looking to establish a long, happy career like his is simple, “Focus, pay attention, make sure that’s what you want to do. Don’t jump into something that you don’t want to do.”